CC Feature: The Streets Of TV Land – Fifty Years of TV Cop Cars

It’s a jungle out there. There are times when the thin blue line is the only thing that stands between polite society and total anarchy. Nowhere is that more true than on prime time American television. Since TV became the window on pop culture in its golden age, the “cop show” genre has been an essential staple of programmers and producers who need action, style and an element of danger to attract and hold an audience.

In fact, the cop show is probably the only programming niche that has not changed that much since the advent of commercial television in the late 1940’s. The template stays the same, but the modalities of crime fighting evolve to reflect the era portrayed. The mobility hardware that our favorite (fictional) crime fighters use has often been a showcase for the manufacturers to inspire the desire to drive one home. Let’s take a lighthearted look at what “the law” drove into our living rooms over the last half century.

All of the “Big 3” freely provided shiny new cars to be used as props for the fictional men (and sometimes women) that patrolled the equally fictional streets of our imagination. My research shows that the most active providers of lawman transport was Ford, followed by Chrysler and to a much lesser degree, GM. The reason for this is not clear cut, but logic would suggest that for most of the time covered herein, GM had a (pun intended) chokehold on the market and saw very little need to go to the trouble and expense of product placement when their products were already market leaders.

For Ford and ChryCo , the calculus was very different. Direct product placement could achieve what paid advertising could not: The association of workaday cars with glamor, style and moral virtue. It was frequently cheaper to provide half a dozen loaners to a studio than purchase network ad time on the same program in which the cars appeared. And there were times when the cars themselves seemed to be the stars of the show. No episode of Starsky and Hutch would be complete without their tomato red Torino wallowing and sliding through a chase scene on a sound stage back lot somewhere. It frequently got as much on-camera time as many of the guest stars.

For the most part, cops on TV drove cars that you could buy new, but there were exceptions. When the period piece Life On Mars appeared on the BBC In 2006, most of the prop cars were lovingly restored early 70’s British saloons that had long since fallen off the road due to… well, being British. But for other shows, only the latest model co-star car would do. For instance, you could always tell when a new season of The FBI was airing by watching for the Mustang model changeover in the closing credits. Even at my young age, I paid attention to stuff like that.

What follows is a brief look at what they were driving in the square, sometimes color, sometimes monochrome world of make believe over the last half century. The TV universe is vast, so no short feature can cover every car and every show. But if I’ve given short shrift to one of your favorites , please set me straight in the comments below.

Let’s book ’em.

The Andy Griffith Show- 1960 – Ford Fairlane / Ford Galaxie 500. Okay, this is not really a “cop” show as we now understand the term. It was more of a situation comedy that had some cops in it. TAGS (as it is known here in the south) always had the latest full size Fords as Sheriff Andy Taylor’s squad car. But these “cop cars” are among the most replicated prop cars ever.

TAGS conventions frequently have a whole row of replica Mayberry sheriff’s cruisers lined up for judging. [PN: or sitting at the curb in Eugene, like ’64].  The product placement seems to have been deliberate; episode credits include autos furnished by the Ford Motor Company.

The FBI– Sunday nights were special for the little Nelsons in the mid 60’s. We got to stay up on Sunday and watch The FBI (at 8, on ABC) . We had an early bus to catch so this was an indulgence that we cherished. No sly product placements here- Ford sponsored the show. You can spot every model in the FoMoCo lineup if you watch the program closely enough. Efrem Zimblast Jr. was the G-man hero of the show and he drove a Mustang. Black and white squad cars were always Galaxie 500’s or later LTD’s. The FBI was a big winner and ran for 10 seasons (an eternity in TV) and always hung around the top 10.

The Ford commercials can be seen in You Tube videos to this day and are fascinating to watch. The shows close and credits amount to an unpaid commercial as the star drives around in a ’67 Mustang convertible like the one above for what seems like an hour.

Adam 12– The producers of Adam 12 must have liked using big thirsty cars for Martin Milner and Kent McCord to clean up the streets of Los Angeles in the late 60’s / early 70’s. Patrol duty was handled by a 1968 Belevedere 383 for the first three seasons.

The final half of the show’s run saw officers Malloy and Reed making the collar in their ’73 AMC Matador with a 401. The show was a Jack Webb production ( Dragnet) and had a very successful run on NBC from 1968 to 1975. This is the only show that I can find that used AMC cars as the featured product.

Hawaii Five -O– The Five- O unit in Honolulu put their trust in Fords , for the most part, but it was Steve Mc Garret’s 1974 Mercury Marquis that was the car that stole the show. Jack Lord played the head of Five -O for 13 seasons from 1968 to 1980 while the lower ranked characters had to make due with motor pool Galaxie 500’s and the occasional Custom 500 (in the early years). The original show’s Marquis actually has a fairly large role in the remake/recasting of the show last fall. CBS has made it known that the car was the actual vehicle that Lord drove through the final years of the original. Needless to say, it still looks great today.

MCGarret’s first ride was a ’68 Mercury Parklane:

I’ll bet that this show sold a lot of Parklanes.It was a solid hit for CBS during its first run. Reruns can be seen to this day.

Kojak-Anybody that ever found themselves stuck in a Holiday Inn with cable tv on a business trip knows that Theo Kojak drove a Buick Century with a massive 455 as he battled crime in the Big Apple. Usually when on that business trip you had to suffer through countless re runs until you couldn’t bear to ever look at a Tootsie Pop or four door Buick again. Anyway , one of the nice things about location filming in New York was the clean shots of Checker Cabs that used to absolutely own the streets there.The show had a respectable 125 episode run on CBS from 1973 to 1978.

The Streets Of San Francisco– The 1972 Galaxie 500 actually made it into the opening credits of this one. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas played Lieutenant Mike Stone and Inspector Steve Keller, respectively,  in this ABC series that ran from 1972 -1977. In 121 hour long episodes , they cruised the streets solving assorted murders and mayhem. The show was shot on location in ‘Frisco. This series was a solid hit and stayed near the top 10 for most of its run. The credits include FoMoCo as auto providers.

Starsky & Hutch– Clumsy product placement as an art form. The stars of this buddy cop show were Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, but the “undercover” car that they drove was a ’75 Gran Torino painted bright red with a giant vector stripe down the side. Blended right in. Ford had a formal studio loan/lease program by this time and other characters were frequently seen in motor pool/cop salary stripper sedans with the blue oval.

Lots of S&H replica cars were made and displayed at every car show in the country for what seemed like an eternity after the show went off the air. The paint scheme was really easy for any paint and body man to duplicate and you saw a lot of copycats. For a show with all of the depth of a Paris Hilton interview, this thing surprisingly ran for 93 episodes from 1975 to 1979 on ABC.

Hill Street Blues– When HSB debuted in 1981 on NBC (on Thursday nights), audiences didn’t know what to make of it. Characters talked over one another , cops drank on the job and sometimes the bad guy got away with it. Low ratings almost killed the show, but NBC hung in there and Hill Street is now on most short lists for best cop shows, ever. The opening sequence shows a squadron of 1976 Dodge Monaco’s slipping and sliding around Chicago, where some outside shots were filmed, but the show never revealed its true location in 146 hour long episodes. There was no overt product placement in this one, though. The main character (Daniel J. Travanti) drove the latest Olds 88 as his captain’s perk.

The patrol cars are all B body Mopars from the mid 70’s. Cars play a huge role in Hill Street’s leitmotif. Most outdoors shots take place inside a car, with interaction between characters as they drive the streets on “The Hill” .There must have been a car buff on the writing staff: One episode centers around the theft of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus’s 1959 Buick and his travails in getting it back. Despite being a masterwork of TV, the series oddly is seen only in Britain these days. Hour long serial dramas have fallen out of favor on this side of the pond and it’s unlikely that we will see HSB’s type again.

Miami Vice– MV was the series that showed us that cops have better pay and benefits than they are letting on. Detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) kept Metro Dade County and greater Miami safe while tooling around in a Ferrari, of all things, during this shows five seasons on NBC. His partner (Ricardo Tubbs, played by Philip Michael Thomas) , made do with a ’64 Cadillac Coupe DeVille convertible. In fact, this series was a car spotters dream. Every major character had a car befitting the good life in South Florida and the dope dealers were ashamed to be seen in anything other than an up to the minute gray market Mercedes.

The show also is remembered for some crazy product placement: When it was discovered that the Ferrari that Johnson used was a replica (on a Corvette chassis) , Enzo Ferrari (majordomo of the car company with his name on the hood) sued to get the kit taken off the market. He won and Vice got a couple of free, new Testarossas to um, run radar on I-95.The replica was blown to heck in the first episode of season three. But the show itself was on life support by then . The originators had moved on, the scripts were all the same and the “hip” look and chic feel of the show had grown stale. By the end of its run , MV had fallen out of the top 20 and the younger audience that had been weaned on MTV had found a new fad to follow.

Life on Mars– Television programmers are often taken to task for copycat, formulaic TV. This series which ran on BBC One in 2006-2007 was anything but. Combining elements of fantasy, science fiction and police drama, LOM portrayed the aftermath of an accident involving the title character (Sam Tyler, played by John Simm) that transported him back to the U.K. circa 1973. Cars are a huge part of the storyline in this one, starting with the first episode and running as a continuing thread through the entire series story arc. How the producers got all of those old Limey cars to run long enough to film I’ll never know, but its a charming time capsule for old car watchers. Tyler drives a Ford Cortina as his personal car in the series and its a pleasure to spot obscure British makes roaming the streets in many scenes.

Life on Mars had a second life in the U.S. In 2008/09. More like a half life. If you blinked, you missed it. The story and even the scripts were almost identical to the original, though set in New York City. Jason O’Mara took the lead role in the U.S. remake, and he drove a 1971 Chevy Chevelle SS as his personal car. NYPD squad cars are mostly green and black Mopars (changing to blue and white later in the series) and of course, lots and lots of late 60’s cabs and trucks. A car spotters delight. The series lasted 17 episodes before ABC pulled the plug.